Death-Defying Descents: 6 Best Runways For Extreme Landings

View of Saba airport

2.92min read

Published 7 April 2015


Long lines, terse agents, overpriced food and delays – in the world of travel, airports are notorious for being necessary obstacles standing between travellers and their final destinations.

But according to users of the question-and-answer site, at the world’s most unique airports, the take-offs and landings make it all worth the ride.

A Death-Defying Descent

Nepal’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport is built for adventurers. Tucked high in the Himalayan town of Lukla, the airport’s 460-metre runway has a steep 12-percent incline, making it only accessible to helicopters and small, fixed-wing planes.

To the north of the runway, there are mountains, and to the south is a steep, nearly 600-metre drop, leaving absolutely no room for error.

 Aerial view of the Hillary Airport
Coming in for a precarious landing at Nepal's Tenzing-Hillary Airport (image: Reinhard Kraasch)

The terrifying airstrip serves as an entry point for mountain climbers who are keen to tackle the world’s tallest mountain. “This is where most Everest summiters land,” wrote Quora user Amy Robinson. “It is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that this airport was named after the region’s most famous adventurers: Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first people to reach Everest’s summit.

Racing The Tide

At high tide, the runway of Scotland’s Barra Airport is nowhere to be seen.

“The airport is unique, being the only one in the world where scheduled flights use a beach as the runway,” wrote Quora user Amit Kushwaha. As such, flight times are dictated by the tide.

Located in the shallow bay of Traigh Mhor beach on Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides, the airport’s runways are laid out in a triangular formation and are marked by wooden poles to help guide the Twin Otter propeller planes onto the sand.

 Plane landing on the beach
Taking off from Barra Airport at low tide (image: Getty)

Don't Over-Shoot The Landing

For pilots, landing at the Maldives’ Male International Airport is daunting. The lone asphalt runway – which lies just two metres above sea level – takes up the entire length of Hulhule Island in the North Male Atoll, so a minor miscalculation could send the plane careening off into the Indian Ocean.

“[It’s] one of the few airports in the world that begins and ends with water and takes up an entire island,” wrote Quora user Peter Baskerville.

Because Hulhule Island (one of 1,192 coral islands spread over roughly 90,000 square kilometres) is used mainly for the airport, visitors typically take speedboats to their final destinations once they land.

 Male airport on an island
Male International Airport is both beautiful and dangerous (image: Male Airport)

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Hit The Brakes

Landing at Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, on the Caribbean island of Saba, “is not for the faint of heart,” wrote Quora user Dhairya Manek.

That’s because it is widely regarded as having the shortest commercially serviceable runway in the world – approximately 396 metres. (Typically, runways are between 1,800 metres and 2,400 metres.) That means only small aircraft, which can quickly decrease speed, can land here.

Pilots need to make sure they stick the landing at Juancho E Yrausquin Airport (image: Pia L)

Its setting is as beautiful as it is dangerous. “The airport’s runway is located on a cliff that drops into the Caribbean Sea on three sides and is flanked by high hills on the other,” Manek wrote. “Jet airplanes are not allowed to land at the airport due to its incredibly short runway.”

‘Nerve-Racking … Yet Stunningly Beautiful’

At 2,767 metres above sea level, Colorado’s Telluride Regional Airport is North America’s highest commercial airport. “[It’s] a nerve-racking to experience, yet stunningly beautiful,” wrote Quora user Erin Whitlock.

Telluride’s single runway – which sits on a plateau in the Rocky Mountains, next to a heart-stopping, 300-metre drop to the San Miguel River below – used to be notorious for a giant dip in its centre. But renovations in 2009 made the airstrip safer and made it possible for larger aircraft to land.

Today, the airport’s Mountain Flying Safety guide advises pilots of single- or light-twin-engine aircraft not to attempt night landings, not to attempt flight if high-altitude winds exceed 30 knots, and not to fly if visibility is less than 24 kilometres.

A Heart-Stopping Approach

So petrifying was the landing at the now-closed Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong, passengers had a nickname for it: the Kai Tak Heart Attack.

“The Kai Tak Airport no longer exists, but it was one of the wonders of the flying world when it was in operation [between 1925 and 1998],” wrote Quora user Jay Wacker.

 Aerial view of the Hong Kong airport
Kai Tak Airport in its prime when jets landed between high-rises (image: Getty)

“It was on a little bit of reclaimed land in a harbour and there were high-rises on both sides. It was a relatively short runway for big planes, and it always felt harrowing when landing on a 747.

"When you looked out the window during take-off or landing, you felt like you could look into the living rooms of people.”


This article was written by Husna Haq from BBC and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


hong kong maldives nepal saba scotland

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